Police say Dallas DA's plan to give petty criminals a pass could backfire

Officers say the reforms won't change how they approach their jobs and could have disastrous side effects


Sarah Sarder
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — A day after District Attorney John Creuzot announced sweeping changes to Dallas County’s criminal justice system, local police officials and union leaders pushed back, saying his reforms won't change how they approach their jobs and could have disastrous side effects.

Some of the harshest criticism came from DeSoto Police Chief Joseph Costa, who announced Friday afternoon that his officers would disregard Creuzot's plan to decriminalize low-level offenses and decrease the use of excessive probation and bail.

"I understand and appreciate that in Texas, the elected District Attorney can control which cases his office prosecutes and those offenses he chooses not to prosecute. Police officers, however, have to follow state law," Costa said in a written statement. "I have instructed DeSoto Police Officers to continue to make arrests as necessary to protect our citizens and to help prevent crime, regardless of the initiatives implemented by the District Attorney."

Costa promised to attempt to prosecute any cases rejected by the DA's office in municipal court so residents feel the Police Department is "doing all it can to keep the City of DeSoto safe and secure."

Speaking after a Friday morning news conference by Creuzot, Dallas Police Association President Michael Mata acknowledged that Creuzot's changes would have positive effects, from decreasing the jail population to easing the workload for police officers. 

But Mata and Sheldon Smith, his counterpart with the National Black Police Association, also voiced disappointment that Creuzot had not sought input from local police chiefs and other "stakeholders," like small businesses, before rolling out his plan.

Creuzot, however, said he had met with local police and city officials, and he had yet to hear a viable solution.

"I've met with the police chiefs," the district attorney said, "and I've met with the City of Dallas and I've asked them to come up with a solution. Today, I've got no response. So we're going to act."

Mata and Smith said they expected multiple problems to arise from the changes, but nothing concerned them more than the decriminalization of theft of necessities worth up to $750.

"This will run people out of business," Mata said. "Hundreds of dollars [in stolen goods] is not low-level theft."

Smith said small businesses won't be able to survive in South Dallas and Oak Cliff if they must absorb the losses from theft.

"We know Walmart is leaving South Dallas," Smith said. "If Walmart is leaving, how much theft do you think is happening? The little store has absolutely no chance of staying in business."

Mata admitted that the Dallas Police Department, shorthanded as it is, can't respond quickly to low-priority crimes like shoplifting. As a result, he said, shopkeepers may feel compelled to do what the police and district attorney won't.

"Either that shop owner is going to have to take matters into his own hands," he said. "Or he's going to have to let $600 worth of merchandise walk out of his store. ... It's sending the wrong message."

Mata argued that most people suffer from lower-level crimes, not violent crime, and the police must serve those residents, as well.

Furthermore, Smith said, dismissing trespassing charges would leave no place for police to take homeless offenders because shelters are often full. Costa echoed that sentiment, adding that often the homeless and mentally ill commit other offenses that Creuzot has also recommended not be prosecuted.

Creuzot acknowledged the issue of mentally ill offenders in his news conference, saying the county would build a dedicated facility to house those homeless individuals.

"There's nothing good that's going to come out of putting a mentally ill person in Dallas County Jail or any other county jail," he said.

The district attorney also announced changes to how law enforcement would deal with second- and third-time marijuana offenders. With some exceptions, Creuzot outlined a plan that would refer those people for intervention and treatment instead of jail. He was unclear on the details of the plan.

Also weighing in on the reform plan Friday was the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which lauded Creuzot's sentiment but said the county must ensure that the new policies are constitutional. 

"We are pleased that DA Creuzot continues to recognize the need to reform our bail system and the serious harm that comes from detaining people simply because they cannot afford to pay bail," senior staff attorney Trisha Trigilio said in a written statement. "For reforms to become a reality, all stakeholders must join together, including the district judges who continue to resist voluntarily making changes to improve the system in Dallas County."

The leaders of the police associations echoed that call for consensus, saying they would ask to sit down with Creuzot to discuss the plan and its shortcomings.

"We have a responsibility to protect the public," Mata said.

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©2019 The Dallas Morning News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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